santomatteo is a Milan-based duo whose collaborative and performative practice unsettles the physical, psychic, intellectual and emotional boundaries that demarcate individual identities. Comprised of Santo Tolone and Matteo Mascheroni, two artists who have never practiced separately, santomatteo’s first Australian exhibition was presented at TCB as part of the Making Space: Artist Run Initiatives in Victoria festival in May and June of this year.

The title of santomatteo’s exhibition TVB was shorthand for ‘Tu voglio bene’, a colloquial Italian phrase used to express goodwill or love for another. Thus, TVB investigated the nature and parameters of love and friendship, presenting a series of distinctive self-portraits that visually articulated the classical concept of the friend as the second self. Like the figure of the centaur that informs the self-produced santomatteo logo, TVB presented the two artists as liminal beings; symmetrical, porous and symbiotic, caught between two natures, the embodiment of untamed nature and masculinity.

Upon entering TCB, the visitor was greeted with It’s me, 2006, a large-scale photographic portrait installed at ceiling-height above the entrance to the main gallery. Featuring a devotional-style image of a balding, moustached man, his eyes cast downwards like an angel’s, the portrait’s raw, direct photographic style belied the work’s otherwise kitsch aesthetic.

Following the photographic subject’s gaze to the opposite gallery wall, the viewer encountered a second portrait of what looked like the same man in counter-pose; a doppelganger whose similarly adoring, dewy gaze was this time directed upwards, drawing the viewer into the divine scene. On closer inspection however, it become apparent that the two contemplative figures were in fact different people shaped in the same image, the two artists locked in a dual gaze. As a photographic performance, It’s me presented the notion of friend as a reflection, integration and disruption of the unstable self, and like the video performances installed in the adjacent gallery spaces, it implicated the viewer in the construction of this complex, unsettling subjectivity.

The comic and poetic ‘PProject’, 2006, a life-sized video projection in the main gallery space, recalled Andres Serrano’s infamous photograph Piss Christ, with its introduction of urine (an entirely corporeal substance) into a religiously charged scene. In this looped video performance, the artists silently entered a transcendent white space, stood side-by-side and stared impassively straight ahead, their every breath and blink perceptible. After a few seconds the viewer became aware of dark patches slowly bleeding across the front of both artists’ trousers, and spidery patches of urine trickling down their legs onto the pristine floor.

With its punning title, ‘PProject’ specifically investigated the notion of fraternity, suggesting the sharing of a behaviour that is specifically male, and characteristic of male social bonding. More specifically, the defiant, empathic act also suggested the marking out of a territory, in this case the territory of the desired other. By synchronising their bodily impulses and gestures, santomatteo displayed a sense of embodiment that was active, participatory and possibly even transformative, turning a taboo activity into one of assertion and self-possession. Moreover, the straightforward performance emphasised the artists’ and viewer’s physical presence in the world, encouraging the viewer to empathise with this tender impersonation and performance of the other.

The third work in TVB was Carillion, 2004, another intimate and simple video performance that articulated santomatteo’s sexually charged friendship and desire for oneness. In it, the artists portrayed themselves as real-life figurines in a carousel, slowly waltzing to a mechanically produced musical tune. Circling naked against a floating white backdrop and concluding their ungainly dance with a loving kiss, the homoerotic performance contained quasi-marital symbolism, and thus articulated a ceremonial or ritualistic quality. The simple and short-lived performance of Carillion concluded with a sequence of ludicrously long production credits that far exceeded the duration of the performance itself. As a politicised artistic strategy, the extended scrolling text playfully but explicitly highlighted the redundancy of both singular authorship and the cult of the individual in contemporary visual art.

Indeed, questions of originality in art were reflected in uncanny ways in santomatteo’s exhibition, and in the way the works eluded the viewer’s attempts to discern original, copy, impostor, or fake. Yet santomatteo’s representations of duality in TVB also acknowledged, however minimally, the existence of differences between the two artists, and therefore did not invoke a simple duplication of identity and experience, or a reproduction that depended upon an original, but rather two partial, parallel, and symbiotically lived lives. TVB articulated individual identities as part of an ongoing dialectic of sameness and difference, and gently reminded the viewer that it is within an exuberant world of copies that we arrive at an experience of originality.